AMU controversy

Separate staircases for girls, partitioned classrooms: gender segregation is not new on Indian campuses

While Aligarh Muslim University does not have a blanket ban on women in its main library, other Indian colleges are busy preventing boys and girls from talking to each other.

This week, you probably joined in the outrage expressed over Aligarh Muslim University’s rules that bar undergraduate students from the Women’s College campus from using the Maulana Azad Library on the institute’s main campus.

But by the standards of Indian educational institutions, AMU’s case is hardly surprising. Across the country, there are campuses that enforce gender segregation in far more bizarre ways, compelling students to live with outrageous concepts such as separate staircases for women and banning conversations between boys and girls.

Ever since the AMU controversy erupted on Monday, the story has been all over the media: students from the Women’s College, situated 3 kms away from the main campus, repeated their long-standing demand to be allowed access to the main library, and while turning down their demand, vice chancellor Zameeruddin Shah reportedly said that the presence of the girls would draw “four times more boys” in the library.

His remark immediately came under fire from the media, social media, activists and the central government, with HRD minister Smriti Irani calling it an “insult to daughters”.

In response to the backlash, many AMU students came out in defence of their university. They clarified that the Maulana Azad Library actually has hundreds of female members from the main campus, and access is only denied to students of the Women’s College, which has its own (smaller) library. Other students expressed the fear – shared widely on the AMU campus – that Islamophobic elements would give the controversy an anti-Muslim spin.

But AMU is not alone when it comes to gender segregation in colleges. Here are some other Indian institutes that need an as much of an attitude check as the Aligarh university’s vice chancellor.

Separate staircases: St Xavier’s College, Ranchi

After the Delhi gang rape of December 2012, St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, the city's most prestigious autonomous college concluded that the best way to keep its female students safe was by cutting off as many opportunities of interaction between sexes as possible. So the college introduced a separate stairway for women students and installed a partition to divide its 100-seater reading room into two, one for each gender. Predictably, students responded by shunning the reading room altogether.

Divisions in classrooms: MES College, Bangalore

This is one of the many Indian institutes that believes in segregating staircases for men and women, but it is also reported to have divisions in classrooms for male and female students to sit separately. Students are also said to have received oral instructions not to “mingle too much” with the opposite sex, to “maintain distance” and not share food.

No Talking: Sathyabama Engineering College, Chennai

It may be a reputed technical institute in Chennai, but Sathyabama has also earned a reputation for being one of the many Tamil Nadu colleges that don’t allow male and female students to talk to each other. In a poster shared on a student blog, the long-standing rule is explained in detail: “Both the boys and girls should not talk to each other anywhere in the campus or in the University buses. Anybody violating this will be punished and both the parents will be intimated about this…books and study materials should not be exchanged between boys and girls.”

Only handshakes: Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore

In February, students of this Vellore college were notified by the registrar that they had to henceforth “avoid physical contact” with members of the opposite sex “except for handshakes”. This was in response to the “obscene behaviour” that students sitting in pairs around campus displayed, which had been creating an “embarrassing situation” for others. Surprising no one, the notice mentioned that “such obscene behaviour is against our Indian culture and value system”.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.